“This was a mistake.”
I didn’t want to listen to the little voice in my head; in fact, I was trying very hard to ignore it. But it repeated itself insistently as I started at the impression of a huge paw in the mud at my feet: “This was a mistake.”
Squatting in front of me, my companion touched his fingers to the print almost reverently. “Wow! This is the biggest track I’ve seen yet. This mountain lion must be huge!”
The voice again: “This was a mistake.”
Glancing up, my guide seemed to pick up on my anxiety (or abject terror, if I’m going to be honest). “Don’t worry,” he said with an easy smile. “I’ve been here for five months and I’ve only seen a couple of them.”
A couple? As in, multiple mountain lions?
“Um…” I smiled uneasily, trying to look unfazed. “Do you ever worry about mountain lions, working alone out here?”
He shrugged. “Not really. I’m bigger than them, after all.”
I eyed him. He was over six feet tall, well built and solid. I don’t normally feel insubstantial, but at that moment, my five foot one seemed somewhat lacking.
Hesitantly, I pointed this out: “I’m, um, not. I’m actually pretty much the same size as a mountain lion.” And they have a few advantages, such as teeth, claws, and terrifying speed, I added silently.
“Hmm…” He looked me up and down. “That’s true. If I were you…I guess I might carry a knife.”
I glanced down at my miniature keychain Swiss Army knife, and tried to picture using it to defend myself against a mountain lion.
“If it doesn’t kill you with the first lunge, a knife might give you a chance,” he added, losing interest in the print and standing up.
This was definitely a mistake.
“This” was accepting a job working as a field assistant at Hastings Natural History Reservation in central California, helping a professor collect data from his long-term study population of acorn woodpeckers. When I first got the job, I thought I was reasonably well prepared. I had just finished my second summer working as a field assistant at QUBS, and I thought I had the fieldwork thing pretty much figured out.
Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that fieldwork in eastern Ontario was somewhat different from fieldwork in California. It suddenly dawned on me that, in some places, fieldwork involved the possibility of encounters with things that could actually kill me – or at least do some serious damage.
The day I ran into that mountain lion print (approximately 5 feet from my front door) was coincidentally also my very first day of work at Hastings. I spent a significant part of that day mentally composing my resignation letter. But something stopped me from handing it immediately to my boss. I decided that I had to stick it out for a few weeks at least.
Those weeks, however, were spent in a state of almost constant terror. During the day, I worked alone in the hills, and in the evening, I came back to a house located a good 20 min. walk from all the other field station buildings. To make matters worse, for the first few weeks, I was alone in the house – meaning that if I did get dismembered by a mountain lion, no one would even notice my absence.
Looking back on it now, I’m not even sure at what point I stopped being terrified. But somewhere along the line, Hastings won me over. The rolling hills and dry oak savannah were a far cry from the Canadian shield country I was used to – but they were also breathtakingly beautiful.
And the work itself was fascinating. Acorn woodpeckers are small birds with big personalities. Their loud call (“waka waka waka”) is unmistakeable and may have been the inspiration for Woody Woodpecker’s laugh. In many places, they’re considered pests, due to their habit of drilling holes to store acorns in wood of all types – from oak snags to multi-million dollar mansions.
They live in family groups of up to a dozen birds, and individuals work together to maintain their acorn storage facilities and feed the young. Most of my job involved sitting in a hunting blind for hours at a time, monitoring which members of the group brought food to the nestlings. While it did sometimes get tedious, I definitely got to know the birds well!
In the end, the couple of weeks I had talked myself into became more than six months, and since that first visit, I’ve been back to Hastings twice to do more fieldwork. Each time, I end up loving the place more. What I eventually realized that first summer in California is that field work may entail greater risks than a typical 9 to 5 job – but for me, these risks are more than balanced by the rewards of the job.